We need to honor Doris Betts of Statesville

Today, let me tell you about a local writer who is sometimes overlooked. Born on a farm a few miles from Statesville on June 4, 1932, Doris June Waugh was the daughter and only daughter of William E. and Mary Ellen Freeze Waugh, who worked in a textile factory. The Waughs later moved to the city and lived at 233 Kelly St.

Doris’ modest origins are reflected in the characters she wrote about. “I am interested in ordinary people,” she wrote in 1995, “getting by in life, doing the best they can. I come from robust people, not very wealthy, hard-working, and I love them very much. And those are the people I…write about.”

In another quote, he describes his “people” as “primarily Scotch-Irish with a Cherokee featherweight.” Farmers, beauticians, policemen, millers, squirrel hunters, foot soldiers. Earthy, wisecracking people with no college degrees, often no high school diplomas, living rough in the North Carolina foothills: red clay, red rivers. People who get exhausted, who wear out, who get ready…”

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Going further, he noted, “My characters are mystified by the mystery of human life, and I work to alert their eyes to the possibility that God is alive and well.”

While at Statesville High School, Doris got a part-time job (1949-51) with the “Statesville Daily Record,” reporting on events, sometimes including sports, at the school. Her column was titled “Hitting…the High Points,” which was better written than your typical high school news columns. There are occasional glimpses of the nationally acclaimed writer-to-be in Miss Waugh’s early columns.

In the 1950 SHS yearbook, Doris’s achievements in high school are listed. Unsurprisingly, she was on the school’s yearbook staff in various editorial positions. She was also a class poet, a member of the drama club, the Spanish Club, the Beta Club, and was a manager of the girls’ basketball team, while doing columns for the Daily. Her high school seniors recognized Doris as their “Most Talented” classmate. They were probably right.

After graduating from Statesville High with the class of 1950, she entered the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, then known as Women’s College, her tuition partially paid for by her “Statesville Daily Record” earnings.

Some sources claim that Doris never earned a bachelor’s degree, that she finished her college education in 1952 when she married Lowry Matthews Betts, a lawyer, later a judge. Other sources suggest that she earned her bachelor’s degree from Chapel Hill.

A source in Chapel Hill says she never got a degree there, although she apparently took some classes at Carolina. For some unknown reason, our Doris has no entries in Dr. William S. Powell’s acclaimed Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Curious …

The Betts had three children, LewEllen, David, and Erskine.

Originally, he planned to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism, but changed his major to English.

Doris Betts became an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Her first published short story of hers, “Mr. Shawn and Father Scott”, appeared in the magazine “Mademoiselle”, in 1953, when she was 21 years old. Her three collections of stories are “La gentil insurrection y otros tales” (1954); “Beasts of the Wild South and Other Stories” (1973); and “The astronomer and other stories” (1995). “Mr. Shawn and Father Scott” is one of the stories included in “The Gentle Insurrection,” while a story set in Statesville about the old Wallace Herbarium, “Spies in the Herb House,” is included in “The Astronomer.”

Another locally set story was his “All that glitters is not gold”.

Ms. Betts was also the Distinguished Alumni Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she taught creative writing and English literature for over thirty-five years (1966-2001). Her classes were very popular at the university. She was also highly regarded by the faculty, for although she did not have a Ph.D., she was elected faculty president of the University of North Carolina, a great honor indeed. Her writings earned her six honorary titles.

His six novels are “High Houses in Winter” (1957); “The scarlet thread” (1964); “The River to Pickle Beach” (1972); “Heading West” (1981); “Souls Risen from the Dead (1994); and The sharp teeth of love (1997). Tall Houses in Winter, his first novel, is believed to be set in Statesville and is said to have “put Statesville in his ear.” I haven’t read that novel yet, but I plan to.

It was a finalist for the National Book Award. Notably, a story of his, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” was adapted into a short film, “Violet,” which won an Academy Award in 1981.

Doris Betts, 79, died in April 2012 of cancer at her home in Pittsboro. Once, during a visit to Statesville, she described herself as “a recovering Calvinist,” an ambiguous comment at best. She taught Sunday school, sometimes played the organ, and was an elder at the Pittsboro Presbyterian Church.

At the time of Mrs. Betts’ death, I was doing obituaries for R&L and learned who Doris Betts was when a Pittsboro funeral home sent us her obituary. I acknowledged receipt of her obituary and wrote an appropriate condolence note to her family from “Record & Landmark”, as she had been on the staff of the former “Statesville Daily Record”.

I think there should at least be a state historic highway marker in town in his memory and honor, and maybe, too, a writing festival or some other type of literary event in Iredell County in his honor.

OC Stonestreet is the author of “Tales From Old Iredell County,” “They Called Iredell County Home,” and “Once Upon a Time… in Mooresville, NC.”